Bella Sara
Reviewed by Brandy Shaul
Review Date Platform Genre Rating Production
2008-11-18 Nintendo DS Virtual Life E (Everyone) Hidden City Games / Codemasters

After following Hidden City Games' line of Bella Sara trading cards (and the online gameplay that goes along with it) for the past couple of years, I must say that I was pleasantly surprised to here that the experience would finally be moving to the Nintendo DS.

While from the outset, Bella Sara on the DS may look like a simple clone of the gameplay found on the website of the same name, it is instead a much more realistic experience, filled with more depth than I was expecting.

The game begins by allowing you to customize an avatar that will represent you throughout gameplay. After doing so, you are transported to the magical land known as North of North, where you are introduced to a knowledgeable old woman named Freyja who leads you through a tour of her small community, which includes a farmhouse, an expansive set of stables, a championship arena, a notice board, a supply store, and also contains access to three different riding trails.

Gameplay itself is simple. After receiving your first horse, you will be tasked with taking care of its basic needs, including feeding it, grooming it, and making sure it feels loved. This portion of the game is quite similar to the gameplay found on the Bella Sara website, but with a few key differences that take advantage of the Nintendo DS's touch screen capabilities.

In order to make sure that your horse stays happy and healthy, you will first have to feed it, by entering its stall and tapping on the water trough to fill it, and by dragging scoops of feed from bags into the horse's feeding tray. To clean your horse, you enter a step-wise process that has you brushing the dirt from their coats with a sponge, removing any debris from their manes and tails with a small comb, and finally removing any stones from their shoes with a horseshoe pick.

Finally, you are asked to clean your horse's stall, which is another step-wise process that has you using the stylus to drag away soiled hay and replace it with fresh hay.

As you tend to every one of your horse's needs, three bars representing cleanliness, happiness and hunger will fill, with three completely filled bars representing the happiest your horse can be. Once your horse is happy enough, you can choose to ride it, which is where the similarities to the online version of the game end.

Via the game's three riding trails, players can experience the world of North of North in a way never before possible, by traveling through ancient forests, riding on sandy beaches and so on. Certain areas of each trail are at first blocked off to you, until Freyja has seen that you are a talented enough rider to handle the terrain. However, by repeatedly practicing in each trail, you not only further your progress within the game, but you also have the opportunity of coming across random Horseshoes, the game's currency, and various Bella Sara trading cards.

As with the real world cards, these virtual offerings contain inspirational sayings about love, hope, trust, friendship and so on. Once collected, they go into your virtual card album, and can be viewed at any time by traveling to the local farmhouse and choosing the card album option. As you proceed through the game, you will come across ?‚£Card Set?‚´ cards, which are needed to unlock new horses within the game, until you eventually have six horses to bond with and care for.

Each horse comes with their own specialties, which often come into play when accepting odd jobs at the town's sign post. These jobs can be as simple as taking a horse on a walk on a riding trail collecting fruit, or can be more intricate, involving a very specific horse and their own magical abilities. For instance, Thunder is the strongest horse available and can be used to break through various obstacles on the game?‚…s riding trails, whereas Fiona has a fiery mane that can light up her surroundings, including extinguished torches.

After riding for some time, your horse will once again become dirty and even tired to the point that it must go back to its stable and rest. And once again, you must enter the stable and go about your tasks of refilling its three information bars. In this way, the game unfortunately becomes repetitive very quickly.

However, after some time, you will have access to new grooming items in the game?‚…s supply shop that help you complete each task more quickly. For instance, at the beginning of the game, it may take eight or nine taps to remove a single rock from your horse's hoof, but by the end, you?‚…ll be doing it in only one or two taps.

Furthermore, the shop also contains various extras such as new clothing for your avatar, and random Bella Sara trading cards, which can help you to complete your card collection. Also helping on this front is the ability to trade cards with friends via wireless multi-card play, which allows you to trade as many of your cards as you wish with friends who also own the game.

The final portion of gameplay comes in the Championship Arena where, at certain set points during gameplay, various challenges will open up, which range in difficulty from ridiculously simple to still pretty simple. That is to say that even the hardest difficulty level in the game poses little challenge here, making the title perfect for even the youngest of players.

In keeping with the magical theme presented in the game, the title's graphics contain all the makings of a fairytale storybook with randomly appearing sparkles at every turn, tiny cute flowers dotting the landscape, and lots of shades of pink and purple. And while the horses themselves look quite realistic for a DS title, your human character does not, and is comprised of what appears to be a few squares stacked on top of one another with little in the way of detail to help matters.

What does help the overall experience however is the game's sound department. Not only does the game contain many realistic animal noises, but also has a very enjoyable soundtrack. In fact, a few of the songs that play on the Bella Sara website have been transferred over to this version of the game, bringing some nice familiarity to the entire process. However, even the songs that are new to the game fit with Bella Sara's entire theme of appreciation and acceptance of others, with many songs having a very ethnic feel as opposed to the more traditional upbeat pop tunes found in other children's titles.

All in all, while Bella Sara on the DS may not be a complete copy of the franchise's online counterpart, that doesn't make it any less worthwhile for young girls. And after playing multiple horse simulation titles for the DS, I can easily say that you could do much worse than giving this a try.

Special thanks to Jennifer Chong and Codemasters for providing a copy of this title.